Got Audiobook Talent Pt. 2

Learn professional tips from narrator Johnny Heller. I’m continuing my spotlight on just how voice actors gain their behind-the-mic skills in this second part of an every-Wednesday visit with the best in the business, following Paul Ruben last week. Here’s Johnny…

Who is the audience for your workshops & why do you have the expertise to conduct the sessions?
The audience for my workshops consists mostly of actors who are interested in getting into the audiobook narration industry. That being said, I find there are lots of people without an official “actor” background who are also keen to attend and learn about the business.

My expertise comes from having recorded nearly 400 titles and in almost every genre. I’ve won 2 Audies and been nominated 5 times and I’ve been awarded 18 Earphone Awards from AudioFile magazine, 3 Publishers Weekly Listen Up Awards and been named one of the 50 top narrators of the century. I’ve taught voice-over and audiobook workshops in New York, Chicago and LA for many years….really more than I want to think about!

What range of previous training do you find in participants?
Many participants have a decent bit of training and/or experience in theater, commercial or voice-over work. Some have a resume and some have just taken some classes. A great number have zero background in the industry but are avid listeners. Many are librarians or business people anxious for a 2nd or new career.

Still others, sadly, just think it sounds like fun and seems easy… only half of that is true.

What skills do you focus on and why will this knowledge advance a participant’s career in audiobooks?
First I need to say that I take students where they are. I don’t place expectations on them. Everyone is different and everyone comes to me as they are — trained -untrained; skilled- unskilled… If they want a career in the business and they lack requisite skills, I work with them on finding ways to improve and begin training toward a career. If they are great and ready and need only some tweaking — I tweak. As a matter of fact, I tweak all the time! I used to be a closet tweaker but then we got a place without closets and I had to come out.

I focus all the time on one thing and from it comes everything else and I think Paul Ruben and I are on the same page on this — the author’s truth. The simple fact of the matter is that the actor must – at every moment – do one single job — he/she must be a conduit for the author. Every thing that seems wrong or off in a reading comes from the actor missing the truth the author is stating.

Sounds simple but it’s not. I like to think that I help the actor get in touch with this simple idea. From it, we find choices in style and character and pacing and …well – everything.

How does the changing world of audiobook creation – digital technology, home studios, economics – impact the focus of your workshops?
It doesn’t change much. I still teach an audiobook workshop and it’s still about the performance. However we do discuss the business. Who hires you? How do you find work? Do you need a home studio? How do you learn about building or buying one and what equipment will you neeed? How do you market yourself? How do you use social media? How much money should you expect? How do you get started? Etc….

Are there any other fun and interesting facts about narrator training that you’d like to share?
My workshops are fun for the most part. I tend to say funny things here and there and many students have gotten work after they’ve been with me. I can get off on tangents – which is both bad and good I suppose. I welcome questions throughout the day. We spend most of our time working on mic.

Once important point is that students need to bring some copy with them. Bring a few pages of copy from 3 or so genres that you think you would be good at. Students need to understand (and they quickly do!) that we may spend quite a bit of time on just one page. I’m not interested in hearing the story til the end — I need the student to make choices that would make me want to listen to the whole book. There are lots of stops and starts and that’s how the learning takes place.

One of the most important things I think I can fairly say about my workshops is that I find the right way to get through to each student. Some students need only to hear me start saying something before it registers with them; others need to see me working with another student to understand how it relates to them and still others need to hear it a different way to “get it.”

I don’t promise demos to my students since I don’t believe that every student is necessarily ready to make a competitive demo. And I will tell them the truth. Having said that, if you are ready to make one after my workshop or if you’re not ready but still want to make one – I will help — for an additional fee and I do offer a “demo discount.”

I found that when I told some students in the past that they ought to work more before making a demo or that they simply weren’t ready – they did it anyway. If they’re gonna blow their loot, they may as well hand it to me and at least I can minimize some of the damage!

Do you have any upcoming sessions? How can an interested person register?

I will be teaching a one-day workshop through John Florian’s Voice Over Xtra on Saturday Sept 29 as well. For that, contact John at I’m also available for one-on-one sessions through EDGE STUDO. Contact them at:

Thanks, Johnny, for sharing your expertise with us. It’s always good to hang out with a high school pal. Yes, it’s true – Johnny and I both went to the same high school in the Chicago suburbs – except that I am older, and moved on the year before he entered good old Glenbard East. You can catch more of Johnny’s sense of humor on the Abbreviated Audio blog.

Next Wednesday, we’ll hear more about voice acting and audiobooks from one of the most respected members of the Voice and Speech Trainers of America, Pat Fraley. Be sure to stop in!




About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

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